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Suicidal tendencies, when kids see death as an answer

(1996, June 1). "Flowers at the edge of the sea." Los Angeles Times. (1996, March 23). Southern California voices: A forum for community issues platform. Los Angeles Times. (1997, March 10). "Suicidal tendencies, when kids see death as an answer." Los Angeles Times.

OVERVIEW

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers today; accidents rank first, but many of those are actually suicides. Since suicide is a compelling issue among young people, several questions need to be answered: first, why do young people want to kill themselves? Second, what are the signs of a suicidal person? Next, what do teenagers say suicide? Finally, how are schools currently dealing with this increase in teen suicides?

Consider these statistics, gathered from the articles:

  • During the past twenty years, the number of suicides has tripled among those between the ages of 15 and 29.
  • The U.S. reports more than 5,000 teen suicides a year; in 1996, Los Angeles teachers and counselors identified as many as 2,000 suicidal children.
  • One out of every twelve high school teenagers attempted suicide in 1995.
  • 30% Of teenagers have thought about suicide.
  • For every teenager that actually commits suicide, there are another 50-200 attempts.
  • The American Association of Suicidology estimates that every hour and 40 minutes, a young person kills himself.

To address the first question, why young people want to kill themselves, there are several variables and insights to consider. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s gang prevention unit recently compared 1980 and 1990 influential sources for adolescent decision making.

1980

1990

Home

Peers

School

TV

Peers

School

TV

Home

Church

Church

Teenagers in the 1980s clearly had a different view of life than do teenagers of the 1990s. Peers have become the top priority in a young person’s life. Therefore, to attain acceptance among peers, young people constantly strive to perform in front of them, look the right way, say the right thing, or just fit in. The stress from these peer pressures could tempt a teenager to wonder if such a life is worth living.

Dr. Jay Nagdimon, the director of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center believes that the motivations for teen suicide are obvious. He suggests that drugs, depression, and failure at interpersonal relationships are the primary causes of teen suicides. Dr. Nagdimon adds that another strong influence facilitating suicide is societal violence: "Movies are violent, television is violent, music is violent, and sports are violent. By our obsession with violence, we make death seem easy. Even a kid can do it."

How can a youth worker identify an adolescent who may be contemplating suicide? The LAUSD Suicide Prevention Unit identifies the following as signs that a young person is at risk:

  • Depression.
  • Feelings of hopelessness.
  • Loss of interest in activities.
  • Change in appearance.
  • Previous suicide attempts.
  • A plan to commit suicide.
  • Sudden changes in behavior, eating or sleeping habits, or relationships with friends.
  • Statements such as "I want to kill myself" or "The world would be better off without me."
  • Increase in risk taking.
  • Writing or drawing about death themes.
  • Using alcohol or drugs.
  • Giving away prized possessions.
  • Withdrawing from social activities.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Feelings of hopelessness.

Finally, be aware that suicidal behavior is more common among adolescents who have poor problem solving skills and who tend not to seek social support when they’re feeling troubled.

Another important perspective to explore is that of students themselves. Jessie, a school counselor states: " ‘If I could say one thing to a child about suicide, I would say, regardless of how large you think the problem is, it is never too big to share with someone else and find help or answers to whatever is bothering you. Don’t just feel you are along and that there is no one who cares.’ " Amy, 16, a high school junior, says, " ‘It’s been glamorized since the beginning of time. Romeo and Juliet was the most romantic (story) and they both take their own lives. Teens today get so wrapped up in high school life and forget there’s something bigger than the dance on Friday, that there’s a whole world out there.’ " Heidi, 17, a junior, notes, " ‘I believe that many people think that (young people talking about committing suicide) are just playing around, but when someone says, "I don’t want to wake up in the morning" they mean something by that.’ " Finally, a 13-year-old boy who tried to commit suicide but was rescued was asked, "Why did you do it?" He answered, "I don’t know." Adolescents seem to suggest that a difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality may influence a young person’s choice to attempt suicide.

Considering the number of young people contemplating and committing suicide, how are schools currently addressing teen suicide? Suicide prevention classes began sweeping the country in the mid-1980s, after several clusters of students killed themselves and a federal court ruled that school districts could be held liable if inadequate prevention measures contributed to a death. Today, 41% of California’s public school districts have suicide education programs. Nationwide, an estimated 15% conduct such programs. Advocates of suicide education point to data showing that in California, self-inflicted deaths for older teens dropped 39% between 1970 and 1994. At the same time, the U.S. rate nearly doubled. In Los Angeles, one of two cities where the courses were piloted, the teenage suicide rate dropped from nearly three times national average to 28% below it between 1970 to 1994.

CONCLUSION

There are several key issues. First, teenagers have replaced the influences of home and family with peers and TV. More families have two parents working out of the home; there are also more single parent and divorced families than ever before. The breakdown of the home may be at the core of this and many other teenage problems. Compound this changing value system with elusive peer acceptance. The pressure to perform and to look "just right" can suffocate a teen’s purpose in life. Additionally, adolescents tend to blur reality and fantasy; they are often unable to distinguish one from the other. In this, an adolescent may not understand that he or she is mortal and destructable. One contemplating suicide may believe that he or she will not truly die—instead, just like on TV, someone will come and rescue them. Parents need to become more educated about suicide so that they can help their children before it goes too far.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION

  1. What experiences have you had with young people considering, attempting, or committing suicide?
  2. What are your thoughts on suicide? Why do you think people commit suicide?
  3. How can you help someone who is suicidal? Is it your responsibility? Whose responsibility is it to help?
  4. How can you help the friends and family of a young person who has committed suicide?

IMPLICATIONS

 

People are sometimes afraid to discuss suicide, for fear that they are actually planting seeds in someone’s mind. Yet, discussing suicide floods light upon its darkness. Parents, teachers, social workers, youth leaders must openly address suicide—risk factors, its finality, and its effect on friends and family. Also, media’s romanticizing of violence must be combatted with the truth of suicide’s unnatural death.

Scott Clark cCYS